This story was first published in Ake Review, November 2017
I came penniless from Teneria to America, and in Las Vegas, fortune, of sorts, found me. It came in the person of Glock 26- and Harley-Davidson-owning Navajo Indian Atta from Lukachukai, Arizona. I met him at the Desert Treasure, an off-strip Vegas casino. At the time, I had lived in America for two years—seven hundred and thirty days in the desert without feeling the heat of a man. I might have gone without one for longer but for Oprah, who said that women who left their patch desert-dry were prone to cervical cancer. I elevated Atta to preventive care, slowly locking and releasing him as Mama Aina had taught us during initiation. To calm our fears of being married off to old men we did not love, she added: “Remember, true wealth is family.”
I started my family, like everything in Vegas, unexpectedly. The day I missed my period was the same day our casino’s busty manager, who I swear wanted Atta, cornered me: “Bring your green card. I need to update your file,” she smirked.
“Let’s get married and save some money,” Atta proposed. We did. Get married, that is, but we never saved a dime. Because my few black friends had deserted me for going Native American, and I had no relatives in America, Atta insisted we share our good news with Father, the retired Tenerian Minister of Lands and Mines I had spoken to only once since I left home.
“You married an or-po-to?” the syllables exploded through the phone’s speakers.
“He is Native American, not white.”
“He is not black, not even a Nigerian scammer!”
“Marrying strangers is risky.”
“That’s what you do when no one lays a fortune in your lap, and you want to make something of yourself.”
“Do you love him?”
Atta sat upright to hear my answer. I offered none. The truth is, I was not Hollywood in love with Atta. We did not do candlelight dinners, exchange flowers, or watch sappy chick flicks. I married Atta because I needed a green card and believed Mama Aina’s assurances that a fawning husband and children awaited me after intensely locking and releasing him.
“My sons would have asked my permission before they got married,” Father said.
Yes, his precious sons. The ones who died in a road accident as they campaigned against the incumbent—their mother’s half-brother—in Teneria’s presidential election. Aggrieved, Father divorced their mother and married the woman from Cape Verde who vouched she would give him new sons but instead gave birth to me, Pearl. However, my mother died, and I became the painful reminder of Father’s lost sons. The ones he gave acres of land while giving me nothing because, he said, my husband would take me to his land. The sons whose education in England he paid for—out of pocket—but offered to pay only for me to study catering at Teneria’s Vocational Institute. When I rejected his offer and said I was going to America to find my fortune, Father dusted me, kpata-kpata, from his life.
But that was then. True wealth is family, right?
“We are expecting,” I said. “Come to America and see your grandchild.”
“Do American Indians pay dowry?”
“Indians? They’re native Americans, Father.” My voice cracked. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Fathers sacrifice for their daughters,” Atta sprung to my rescue. “The least you can do is to make Pearl happy, bro.”
“I am not your brother. Greet me with respect and don’t give me instructions.”
“He never cared for me. To him, I am just a woman.”
“Ain’t got nothing to do with being a woman,” Atta said. “My Poppa paid me no mind.”
“Then what good is he?”
“I dunno, but everyone is good for something.”
“When you figure out what mine is good for, let me know.”
I should have asked what fathers are good for because soon after Namenata was born, Atta left her feeding, cleaning, caring, and, later, schooling to me. He turned his attention to his bike and guns. Still, I believed in family, so I locked and released Atta harder, faster, and often, only for him to squeal less and bike ride to the gun range more.
Over several years, I woke up, like a spent casino gambler, from the illusion Mama Aina had sold that men wanted women to be sexual virtuosos. Rubbish! They wanted only the next willing novice. But what could a village woman peddle to girls on the brink of modern adulthood but a life anchored to preindustrial notions of the family? Thank God I gave up Mama Aina and Father for America. At least, she offered me the divorce option, the LegalZoom highway to independence. Sure, it would be hard to survive alone with a toddler, but I had to confront reality and stop chasing Mama Aina’s phantom wealth: family.
As I was ready to transition myself to liberty during this period of clarity, I received the early morning phone call from back-home every immigrant dreads. Probyn, the nephew whose wife and children lived rent-free in Father’s house in exchange for caring for him, complained. “Uncle pours sugar on his vegetable stew because he says, we are ‘jackasses’ who do not know how to cook sweet chop. During the day, he closes the curtains to stop ‘jackass thieves’ from seeing the valuables in the house. At night, he opens the curtains and stays awake to stop them from entering. Then, in the mornings, tired and confused, he walks to town to do business. He often returns home complaining that other ‘jackasses’ had switched around the houses and roads. Twice he came home without his wallet. Yesterday, he did not come home. Late at night, we found him in a ditch, wearing only his underpants, bleeding.”
Probyn declared: “A father is best cared for by his daughter, especially in America where life is easy.”
“Let’s do it,” Atta later agreed to Probyn’s idea.
“Take care of a senile man who never cared for me on our income in this two-bedroom hole?”
“Who gets to inherit all his land and houses when he takes the dirt nap?”
I was not too fond of Atta’s off-hand phrase. But. Reels of green acres and multi-year lease payments spun in my head like those of our slot machines.
“We buy one of ’em cheap life insurance that don’t require a medical exam so, worse case, we’re not stuck with his dirt nap bill. Odds are in our favor, right?”
I did not need any more convincing. I proposed coming to live with us to Father.
“What am I going to do in America?”
“Relax, get to know me, and your granddaughter.”
“My children are here.”
“No, Probyn is your nephew with his wife and kids.”
“I don’t want to live with strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger. I’m your daughter!”
“Then come and live with me. My house has many rooms.”
“There aren’t enough for all of us—”
“You can share—”
“Besides, electricity and water are not regular.”
“Has that killed us?”
“No, but they are minimums we expect.”
“Then stay where you are with your minimums.”
“No, you’re coming, and that’s it.”
He left us no choice. After a few days of feeding him a Valium-like root he bought from a street-side herbalist, Probyn dressed a compliant Father and handed the reluctant immigrant to an airline official for a US-bound flight. Atta brought him home from the airport early last December.
I was heavy with our second child when Atta settled Father into the sofa opposite the sliding glass doors of our second-floor apartment balcony that overlooked Interstate 15, the Liberty Highway.
“What did he say when he saw you?”
“Nuttin.’ Stared at me when I said I was your husband. He ain’t spoke since. Gonna be easy caring for him,” Atta said.
“Hello, Father.” I hugged a hardened plastic body that offered not even a twitch of recognition. Only the smile he bestowed on Namenata after she greeted him hinted he was aware of his connection to us. As he tracked her movements, the muscles on his face slackened, his skin turned an even toffee color.
“He likes her,” Atta said.
We confirmed this observation the next day when Father uttered his first words in America: “Hush ya,” he had said to Namenata after our neighbor’s bulldog shredded Bear-Bear, the stuffed teddy she won at the state fair.
Father next spoke on Christmas morning amid the litter of gift-wrapping paper. The incandescent star atop our Christmas tree flashed news of the heavenly father’s gift of love, a sense of which Namenata must have felt for her earthly father when she opened a bulky present to reveal a repaired Bear-Bear. Atta had bought the needle, thread, and polyester fill and had resewn the stuffed animal. Excited at its rebirth, Namenata rolled around on the floor. She clasped the life-size teddy between her legs and screamed with joy.
“She is practicing for when she gets older!” Father said and winked at Atta.
“A lack of judgment is common at this stage of Alzheimer’s,” the psychiatrist explained a few days later. “Patients like him also lose muscle control, become rigid, and lack balance, which can lead to falls, even death. Here’s a prescription for Namzaric. It will slow down the disease.”
“He needs to be in a home,” Atta said through clenched teeth later that night as he closed the curtains of the sliding glass doors.
“Ain’t gonna have a grown man living here and thinking like that about my daughter.”
“What are you saying?”
Atta twirled his pointer finger into his temple. At about the same time, we heard footsteps and turned. Father stood under the arched wall separating the bedrooms from the living area, stared at us for a moment, shuffled past Atta, and reopened the curtains.
Atta took Father by his elbow and escorted him into the bottom stack of the bunk bed he shared with Namenata. To prevent Father from getting up again, I laid down with him, my bulging belly crushed against him, one side of my buttocks hanging over the edge of the bed, my mind struggling to love the mannequin lying next to me and the flesh-and-blood man lying in the adjacent room. Family. Sigh.
Father spoke again on New Year’s Eve. Our neighbor had taken Namenata and the born-again Bear-Bear to the park. Father was sitting on the sofa across from the sliding glass doors. Exhausted from dressing him, I was nodding on and off in my bedroom, waiting for Atta to return from his graveyard shift, when I heard their voices in the fog of semi-consciousness.
“What did you say?” Atta said.
“Say good morning when you walk into my house,” Father said with the confidence of an owner to a trespasser.
I started looking for an elder care home the next day.
Father spoke one more time before he died. It was on a Saturday morning, bath time, an activity he did not like. I reminded him that cleanliness was next to godliness, that towel baths, which he preferred, assured him only a place in purgatory, a prospect which sufficiently unnerved him for us to push him from the bedroom into the bathroom. There, we undressed and guided him into the sit-down shower. While Atta bathed him, I hung out with the kids.
I was breastfeeding Junior, Namenata at my side, when I heard Papa and Atta laughing, the deep-inside-the-belly kind of two close friends. Then boodoom, baadaam! Something, someone, had fallen. Instructing Namenata to look after Junior, I scrambled into Father’s bedroom to find him naked, on his back, his head neatly cupped into a hole in the drywall.
“What happened?’ I asked after Atta and I had dressed and made sure Father was not hurt.
“I was sitting right there,’ Atta pointed to a chair, “getting ready to dry him off. “‘Come close, Poppa,’” I said. “He took two baby steps but was still too far away for me to get the towel on him.”
“Closer,” I said.
“‘No, I don’t want my dick dangling in front of your mouth,’ he said.”
“I laughed. He laughed. Then he freakin’ fell! Guess he didn’t want a head job!”
I laughed. Atta laughed, but the episode was no laughing matter. Father needed professional care. Desperate, we found Dyer Home for Adults. More expensive than we could afford, but something had to give.
I visited Father daily during his month-long stay at Dyer. He never talked, but his eyes sparkled every time I walked into his room. Then, two weeks ago, the home called: the attendant dressing father had turned around for a moment, and he had fallen and hit his head on the wall.
Probyn, his wife, and his children called on the night of Father’s funeral. Their garbled condolences and Bible verses ended with an off-key rendition of ‘Amazing Grace,’ after which Probyn spoke of deserving service. As the one who for a decade repaired the house, paid the utilities, and cared for Father, surely he deserved, nay, had earned, the right to own it and collect the rent from its three adjoining flats? “A cow tied to a post has no choice but to eat the grass around it,” he said.
“All he cares about is money,” I said to Atta after the call ended. He half nodded, dropped two envelopes in my lap, and laid one side of his head on the back of his clasped palms to signal he was going to sleep.
Irritated at Atta’s indifference to Probyn’s property grab, I ripped open the first envelope and pulled out a cheque: $10,000, the payout from Father’s life insurance, eight thousand of which was committed to the funeral home. I opened the second envelope marked Law Offices of Fowler-Knight, the firm representing the adult residential home and pulled out a letter. It said that Dyer Homes was concluding its negotiations over Father’s death, not admitting responsibility for it, acknowledging the importance of a father, and noting his death was a significant loss, especially to a loving daughter. It quantified the loss as $450,225.16.
I shuddered, stood up, and walked into our bedroom to share the news of our fortune. Atta was sleeping on his back, Namenata’s face tucked into his spiky armpit hairs, and Junior outstretched like a ragdoll on his chest. Baby-care products, gun, and bike paraphernalia cluttered the room. I wanted to remove Junior from his father’s chest and put him in his crib, but I dared not disrupt this messy family scene. I turned off the lights, returned to the living room, and sat alone in the frenetic ambiance of the flashing star atop the Christmas tree and the music of the wheeled Sirens racing on the Liberty Highway—Mama Aina, family, and Fathers on my mind. In my grip, a Vegas payout.
Pede Hollist is a Sierra Leonean-born professor of English and fiction writer at The University of Tampa, Fl. USA. He is an avid sports fan.